Tada's stories and scriptural encouragement, as well as her personal insights about suffering and the goodness of God, give new life to the discouraged and new perspective on our difficulties.
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About the Author
Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and CEO of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, which ministers to thousands of disabled people and their families through programs of practical encouragement and spiritual help. She is also an artist and the author of numerous best-selling books such as Joni; Heaven: Your Real Home; and When God Weeps.
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HOPE IS HARD TO COME BY
Sometimes hope is hard to come by. Like the other week when I visited my friend Gracie Sutherlin in the hospital. Gracie has been volunteering at our Joni and Friends' Family Retreats for many years, and despite her age of sixty-one, she's always been energetic and active with the disabled children at our camps. All that changed a month ago when she broke her neck in a tragic accident. Gracie has always been happy and buoyant, but when I wheeled into the intensive care unit to visit her, I did not even recognize the woman lying in the hospital bed. With tubes running in and out of her, a ventilator shoved down her throat, and Crutchfield tongs screwed into her skull, Gracie looked completely helpless. She couldn't even breathe on her own. All she could do was open and close her eyes.
I sat there by Gracie's hospital bed. I read Scriptures to her. I sang to her: "Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side." I leaned as far forward as I could and whispered, "Oh, Gracie, Gracie, remember. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies." She blinked at that point, and I knew she recognized the phrase. It's a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
The Shawshank Redemption is a story about two men — Andy Dufrane, who is unjustly convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, and his friend Red. After many hard years in prison, Andy opens up a path of promise for himself and for Red. One day in the prison yard, he instructs Red that if he is ever freed from the Best of Things Shawshank, he should go to a certain town and find a certain tree in a certain cornfield, to push aside the rocks to uncover a little tin can, and to use the money in the can to make it across the border to a little Mexican fishing village. Not long after this conversation, Andy escapes from prison and Red is paroled. Red, dutiful friend that he is, finds the cornfield, the tree, the rocks, the tin can, the money — and a letter, in which Andy has written, "Red, never forget. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies." At that moment, Red realizes he has two choices: "Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'."
Sadly, right now, it appears as though my friend Gracie is busy dying. She is stuck at UCLA waiting for surgery on her neck, and an infection in her body is running rampant. The doctors are trying to get her white blood cell count down, but it doesn't look promising. Now when visitors come in to see her, she shuts her eyes against them. Oh, Gracie, hold onto hope. It's a good thing, maybe the best of things.
The Breaking Point
But hope is hard to come by. I should know. I remember the time when I was once busy dying. It wasn't long after I had broken my neck in a diving accident that I spent one particularly hopeless week in the hospital. I had endured long surgeries to shave down the bony prominences on my back, and it was a long recovery. I had lost a great deal of weight. And for almost three weeks I was forced to lie facedown on what's called a Stryker frame — a long, flat canvas sandwich where they put you faceup for three hours and then strap another piece of canvas on you and flip you facedown to lie there for another three hours.
Trapped facedown, staring at the floor hour after hour, my thoughts grew dark and hopeless. All I could think was, "Great, God. Way to go. I'm a brand-new Christian. This is the way you treat your new Christians? I'm young in the faith. I prayed for a closer walk with you. If this is your idea of an answer to prayer, I am never going to trust you with another prayer again. I can't believe that I have to lie facedown and do nothing but count the tiles on the floor on this stupid torture rack. I hate my existence." I asked the hospital staff to turn out the lights, close the blinds, close the door, and if anybody came in — visitor, parent, nurse — I just grunted. I justified it all. I rationalized that God shouldn't mind that I would be bitter — after all, I was paralyzed. And I didn't care how much joy was set before me. This was one cross I was not going to bear without a battle.
My thoughts got darker because no longer was my bitterness a tiny trickle. It had become a raging torrent, and in the middle of the night I would imagine God holding my sin up before my face and saying lovingly but firmly, "Joni, what are you going to do about this? What are you going to do about this attitude? It is wrong. This sin is wrong. Get rid of it." But I, hurting and stubborn, preferred my sins. I preferred my peevish, snide, small minded, mean-spirited comments, grunting at people when they walked in or out, and letting food drool out of my mouth. Those were sins that I had made my own.
You know what it's like when you make sin your own. You housebreak it. You domesticate it. You shield it from the Spirit's scrutiny. I did not want to let go of the sick, strange comfort of my own misery.
So God gave me some help. About one week into that three week stint of lying facedown, staring at the floor, waiting for my back to heal, I got hit with a bad case of the flu. And suddenly, not being able to move was peanuts compared to not being able to breathe. I was claustrophobic. I was suffering. I was gasping for breath. I could not move. All was hopeless. All was gone. I was falling backward, head over heels, down for the count, decimated.
And I broke. I thought, "I can't do this. I can't live this way. The Best of Things I would rather die than face this." Little did I realize that I was echoing the sentiments of the apostle Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 1:8 talks of being "so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength that [he] despaired of life itself." Indeed, he even had in his heart the sentence of death. "O God, I don't have the strength to face this. I would rather die. Help me." That was my prayer. That was my anguish.
God Can Raise Us Out of Hopelessness
That week a friend came to see me in the hospital while I was still facedown counting the tiles. She put a Bible on a little stool in front of me and stuck my mouth stick in my mouth so that I could flip its pages, and my friend told me to turn to Psalm 18. There I read: "In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked. ... Smoke went up from his nostrils. ... He bowed the heavens and came down. ... He sent from on high, he took me. ... He rescued me"— and here's the best part —"because he delighted in me" (vv. 6–19).
I had prayed for God to help me. But little did I realize that God was parting heaven and earth, striking bolts of lightning, and thundering the foundations of the planet to reach down and rescue me because he delighted in me. He showed me in 2 Corinthians 1:9 that all this had happened so that I would "rely not on [myself] but on God who raises the dead." And that's all God was looking for. He wanted me to reckon myself dead — dead to sin — because if God can raise the dead, you'd better believe he could raise me out of my hopelessness. He would take it from there. And he has been doing the same for nearly four decades.CHAPTER 2
MEETING SUFFERING AND JOY ON GOD'S TERMS
Four decades ago, as I lay facedown and helpless, God raised me up out of hopelessness, but that was no isolated incident. I didn't just leave my desperation back there in the hospital. No, desperation is part of a quadriplegic's life each and every day. For me, suffering is still that jackhammer breaking apart my rocks of resistance every day. It's still the chisel that God is using to chip away at my self-sufficiency and my self-motivation and my self-consumption. Suffering is still that sheepdog snapping and barking at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary where otherwise I do not want to go. My human nature, my flesh, does not want to endure hardship like a good soldier (2 Tim. 2:3) or follow Christ's example (1 Pet. 2:21) or welcome a trial as friend. No, my flesh does not want to rejoice in suffering (Rom. 5:3) or be holy as he is holy (1 Pet. 1:15). But it is at Calvary, at the cross, where I meet suffering on God's terms.
And it happens almost every morning. Please know that I am no expert at this wheelchair thing. I'm no professional at being a quadriplegic. There are so many mornings when I wake up and I can hear my girlfriend come to the front door to help me get out of bed and get ready for the day. She goes to the kitchen, turns on the water, and starts brewing coffee. I know that in a few moments she's going to come gliding into the bedroom, where she'll greet me with a happy "Good morning!" and I am lying there with my the Best of Things closed, thinking, "Oh, God, I can't do this. I am so tired. I don't know how I'm going to make it to lunchtime. Oh, God, I'm already thinking about how good it's going to feel when I get back to bed tonight and put my head on this pillow."
I'm sure you have felt that way at some point. Maybe you feel that way every morning. But Psalm 10:17 says, "O LORD , you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear." "O God," I often pray in the morning, "God, I cannot do this. I cannot do this thing called quadriplegia. I have no resources for this. I have no strength for this — but you do. You've got resources. You've got strength. I can't do quadriplegia, but I can do all things through you as you strengthen me [Phil. 4:13]. I have no smile for this woman who's going to walk into my bedroom in a moment. She could be having coffee with another friend, but she's chosen to come here to help me get up. Oh, God, please may I borrow your smile?"
And just as he promises, he hears the cry of the afflicted, and before even seven-thirty in the morning he has sent joy straight from heaven. Then, when my girlfriend comes through the door with that steaming cup of coffee, I can greet her with a happy "hello!" borrowed from God.
To This You Were Called
To this you, too, were called. To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you this kind of example that you should follow. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2). Should we expect to do less? So then, join me; boast in your afflictions. Delight in your infirmities. Glory in your weaknesses, for then you know that Christ's power rests in you (2 Cor. 12:9). You might be handicapped on all sides, but you're not crushed. You might be perplexed, but you're not in despair. You might be knocked down, but you're not knocked out. Because it says in 2 Corinthians 4:7–12 that every day we experience something of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ so that, in turn, we might experience the power of the life of Jesus in these bodies of ours.
Do you know who the truly handicapped people are? They are the ones — and many of them are Christians — who hear the alarm clock go off at seven-thirty in the morning, throw back the covers, jump out of bed, take a quick shower, choke down breakfast, and zoom out the front door. They do all this on automatic pilot without stopping once to acknowledge their Creator, their great God who gives them life and strength each day. Christian, if you live that way, do you know that James 4:6 says God opposes you? "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
And who are the humble? They are people who are humiliated by their weaknesses. Catheterized people whose leg bags spring leaks on somebody else's brand-new carpet. They are immobilized people who must be fed, cleansed, dressed, and taken care of like infants. They are once-active people crippled by chronic aches and pains. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, so then submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, who loves nothing more than to discourage you and corrode your joy. Resist him and he will flee you. Draw near to God in your affliction, and he will draw near to you (James 4:6–8). Take up your cross daily and follow the Lord Jesus (Luke 9:23).
I must qualify that last statement. Please know that when I take up my cross every day I am not talking about my wheelchair. My wheelchair is not my cross to bear. Neither is your cane or walker your cross. Neither is your dead-end job or your irksome in-laws. Your cross to bear is not your migraine headaches, not your sinus infection, not your stiff joints. That is not your cross to bear. My cross is not my wheelchair; it is my attitude. Your cross is your attitude about your dead-end job and your in-laws. It is your attitude about your aches and pains. Any complaints, the Best of Things grumblings, any disputings or murmurings, any anxieties, any worries, any resentments or anything that hints of a raging torrent of bitterness — these are the things God calls me to die to daily. For when I do, I not only become like him in his death (that is, taking up my cross and dying to the sin that he died for on his cross), but the power of the resurrection puts to death any doubts, fears, grumblings, and disputings. And I get to become like him in his life. I get to experience the intimate fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, the sweetness and the preciousness of the Savior. I become holy as he is holy. O God, "you will make me full of gladness with your presence" (Acts 2:28).
And to be in God's presence is to be holy. Not to be sinless, but to sin less To let suffering sandblast you to the core, revealing the stuff of which you are made. And it's never pretty, is it — the sin we housebreak and domesticate and try to make our own? No. Suffering sandblasts that stuff, leaving us bare and falling head over heels, down for the count and decimated.
Meeting Joy on God's Terms
It is when your soul has been blasted bare, when you feel raw and undone, that you can be better bonded to the Savior. And then you not only meet suffering on God's terms, but you also meet joy on God's terms. And then God — as he does every morning at seven-thirty when I cry to him out of my affliction — happily shares his gladness, his joy flooding over heaven's walls filling my heart in a waterfall of delight, which then in turn always streams out to others in a flood of encouragement, and then erupts back to God in an ecstatic fountain of praise. He gets your heart pumping for heaven. He injects his peace, power, and perspective into your spiritual being. He imparts a new way of looking at your hardships. He puts a song in your heart.
I experienced this kind of elation last year when I was in Thailand. I am the senior disability representative with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and last year thirty-six disability ministry workers from around the world, most of them disabled themselves, gathered at the Lausanne conference in Thailand. There was a tall, beautiful African from Cameroon named Nungu Magdalene Manyi, a polio survivor who has made it her life's ambition to rescue other disabled infants who are left on riverbanks to starve to death because a disability is viewed as a curse or a bad omen by local witch doctors.
Pastor Noel Fernández, blind, using his white cane, came all the way from Cuba. Therese Swinters, another polio survivor in a wheelchair, joined us from Belgium. There was Carminha Speirs from Portugal, walking with her crutches. There we came from around the world — thirty-six of us. And we were celebrating the kinds of things I've been talking about in this chapter, how when we boast in our affliction and glory in our weaknesses, God's power is poured out upon us.
By the end of the week, we happy people, our ragtag group of disabled individuals, looked around at this conference and saw that nobody else seemed to be having fun. The conference was a bit stuffy, as conferences can be when we rehearse theology at one another rather than live it with one another. Well, our group of thirty-six was having so much fun praising the Lord that our joy just spilled out of our workshop room. It flooded down the hallway. It spilled over the hotel mezzanine level. And before we knew it, there we were in this fancy resort hotel lobby, and we were a procession of praise, singing, "We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God." I wish you could have heard me singing and seen me dancing. Our procession of praise was an audio-visual of 2 Corinthians 2:14–15: "Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."
You see, we are to God the fragrance of Christ. The world can't see Jesus endure suffering with grace because he's not here on earth, but you and I are. And we can fill up in our flesh what is lacking in his afflictions (Col. 1:24), and in so doing become that sweet fragrance, that perfume, that aroma of Christ to God. What a blessing, a privilege, an honor! What elation! And if I am to remind the Father of his precious Son who suffered, the apple of his eye turning brown with the rot of my sin; if I am to follow in his steps, then it is a gift to suffer alongside him, to take up my cross daily and follow him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hope ... the Best of Things"
Copyright © 2008 Joni Eareckson Tada.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Hope Is Hard to Come By,
2 Meeting Suffering and Joy on God's Terms,
3 Hope Is Contagious,
4 Misery May Love Company but Joy Craves a Crowd,
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